Article for Cathedral Music Magazine


The Klais Organ of Bath Abbey

When is an organ not an organ? Possibly when it’s been re-built so many times it no longer speaks with a distinctive voice and doesn’t know what it is. By the time the organ in Bath Abbey was subjected to review in 1990 it had been rebuilt and enlarged no fewer than four times (and by three different firms if you include the original builder), and on two of those occasions it had been moved to a new site within the building. As in so many greater churches in England the story goes back to the mid nineteenth century and the Victorian obsession with removing quire screens to create a vista through the length of the building. This, of course, led to the search for a suitable home for the organ which had previously stood on the screen. The search has met with varying success in different establishments up and down the country, and in Bath Abbey it took several attempts before the present solution was found.

In France, Germany or Holland the organ would have gone straight to a gallery on the west wall, or possibly into a swallow’s nest, high up the nave wall immediately beneath the vault. This position, by the way, is extraordinarily effective; the sound, having nowhere else to go, seems to run the length of the vault and get reflected straight down to the church floor. It is interesting that manual divisions placed near the vault often speak in the building with the greatest clarity. At the famous Schnitger Organ at St Laurence in Alkmaar this is so much the case that even the resident organists can often not tell whether another organist is playing on the Bovenwerk, or on the much nearer Rugwerk. Be that as it may, the tradition in Britain is that the Choir sings not in a gallery, but antiphonally in stalls in the Quire, as successors of the pre-reformation monks. The great organs on mainland Europe are used primarily for driving congregational singing, and for solo repertoire; for choral accompaniment a smaller Chor Orgel, or Orgue de Choeur is provided near the singers. For much of the Anglican repertoire this simply will not do. The music of S S Wesley (eg Ascribe unto the Lord and The Wilderness) gave rise to a tradition of integrated, symphonic organ writing (by Parry and Stanford and their successors) which demands a large and colourful organ in close proximity to the singers. It is interesting to note that Wesley was a champion of Father Willis and that Willis invented departmental thumb pistons, an essential tool of the accompanist’s art.

In 1868 Bath Abbey was given the Gilbert Scott treatment and, amongst other alterations, the stone quire screen was swept away and the building left to display all it has in little more than a single glance. A new organ was supplied by William Hill & Son and housed on the floor of the north transept. It had 4 manuals and pedals and 41 stops. It can’t have been altogether satisfactory because within only a few years it was moved out of the transept, enlarged to 52 stops and placed on steel girders underneath the north and south crossing arches (where the new wooden quire screens with their exuberant carved angels now stand). Large pedal pipes remained in the transept. Photographs show how unsightly the arrangement was. This too gave rise to dissatisfaction and the organ was again moved – this time back into the north transept, but in a gallery and with a fine neo-classical case, both designed by Sir Thomas Jackson (whose other organ cases include The Sheldonian Theatre and Brasenose, Wadham and Hartford Colleges in Oxford). At this point the organ had 54 stops. Following war damage the organ was again enlarged, this time to 58 stops, and it was given a new Tuba stop (1948). In 1972 the organ was again rebuilt and further enlarged, to 67 stops; on this occasion the additions included a new Rückpositiv division, in a case bracketed out from the balustrade, designed by the Abbey’s then architect, Alan Rome. It nicely echoes the silhouette of the main case.

By 1990 there were pipes and actions from every period of the organ’s life – each representing the fashions of its period; there were also actions with an age difference of approximately a century, all working at different speeds and all in different stages of decay. My investigations as to how to solve various problems with the instrument raised more questions than answers and it became clear that the time had come to spend hundreds of thousands of pounds rather then tens of thousands. Of course no PCC is likely to spend that sort of money on the unsupported word of an employee so we invited Nicolas Kynaston to Bath to draw up a report on the instrument. It came as no surprise that he recommended a complete rebuilding of the instrument with one new action and a new internal design which would allow all departments direct speech into the building and ease of access for maintenance; further patching and cosmetic alterations would be a waste of time and money. It was decided to say farewell to the old organ which had given much pleasure during its life, but which had by now been subjected to as much surgery as it could take. Any parts of the old organ thought valuable would be re-used in the new. This included the Jackson/Rome cases and any pipes thought suitable by the Builder, Organist and Consultant.

Had the organ’s history been different, if it had been of the Willis I – III tradition, and we can all site our favourite examples, or a fine Hill in the Eton or Lichfield mode, then our solution would have been different; but at Bath there was no longer a unified instrument with a distinctive voice, more a collection of departments each representing the fashions of its period. Interestingly, because it had been so altered over the years, those in the know at BIOS thought the old instrument not worth recording by photographs, measurements etc, even though they were offered the opportunity to do so.

Several critical decisions had to be made. Firstly it was decided that the existing position, on a gallery in the north transept represented the best compromise between the various demands of acoustic, liturgy and the architecture of the building. Fortunately the building is fairly wide and, with the nave only 5 bays long and the presbytery 3, not over long, so the transept position, while not ideal, works well. There is no room to squeeze an organ into the aisles, nor is there a triforium gallery, so there was no danger of these less satisfactory compromises.

Another decision was the choice of builder. On the advice of Nicolas Kynaston four firms were invited to Bath to spend a day inside the organ and to tender their scheme for re-building the instrument in a way that would bind it together musically, and which would ensure its long term reliability. The four firms were chosen by the Organist (NK “You’re the customer; you must choose the builders you like”. PK “OK, but you’re the Consultant so you must tell me if I go off the rails”). Here it must be clearly stated that at Bath Abbey nationality was not an issue. Four firms were selected on the basis of their world-wide reputations, achieved through building (or rebuilding) large, cathedral style instruments. It is true that from the beginning we gave serious consideration to an instrument with mechanical action, though this was never a condition. For this reason we included in the list firms which had a track record of building large organs with mechanical action. As it happens, two of the firms were English, one was Austrian and one was German.

The Klais scheme won the contract because of its imagination, the clarity with which it was presented, the obvious thought that had gone into it, and because of the willingness of the firm to engage in discussion and to modify their plans to our own ideas. In our strivings for the best results the designs went through several modifications before the organ was built. Indeed, in their desire for excellence, the Klais firm made some modifications even as the instrument was being installed, and at no extra cost. I have never regretted the decision to award the contract to Firma Klais. On the contrary I believe that the instrument has entirely vindicated our decision and has proved wrong the advisory body who opposed the scheme principally on the grounds that they would have preferred the contract to have been awarded to a British firm. Certainly, when he granted a faculty for the building of the organ, the Chancellor of the Diocese ignored all the recommendations stipulated by that body when they eventually and grudgingly gave their approval.

So what did Klais actually do? Firstly, they designed an entirely new structure and layout for the instrument. This included retaining the Jackson/Rome case (but not most of the case pipes) and the reservoirs (interestingly, all four firms who tendered said they would re-use the reservoirs), the stop knobs (which were re-engraved) and the pipes thought most valuable. The Gothic design of the stop jambs was retained as it is integral to the Jackson case, and new carved key cheeks added in the style of Hill’s work of the 1900s. In January 1996 the old organ went to Bonn almost in its entirety. All that remained were the lowest six pipes of William Hill’s Double Open Diapason 32’ and the Positive case, which couldn’t be prised off the balustrade! The much larger Jackson façade went to Germany for restoration and completion. 12 months later, in January 1997, the organ returned, load by load and was assembled in its new form.

The most noticeable difference from before as one looks at the instrument is that it is now taller. This is because the Jackson case has been raised 18” to accommodate the new Solo division which is placed at gallery level, either side of the console. The panels in this area have been replaced by carved fretwork to allow egress of sound from the pipes behind. The new carving reflects the design of four similar fretted panels amongst the linen-fold panels on the balustrade. Furthermore the main case has been given a back and sides, and the towers roofed in. Previously Jackson’s work had been a façade rather than a true case. All the display pipes in the main case are new, the lines of their mouths running inversely to their tops – as originally drawn by Jackson, but not as installed in 1914 by Norman & Beard in 1914. All the manual divisions and the 8’ Pedal division are contained within the two cases. The 32’ and 16’ Pedal division is placed behind, where there is a veritable forest of wooden pipes, the 32’ being independent from the 16’ Open Wood. The only other pipes not contained within the casework belong to the Solo Tuba, which stands on its own high pressure chest (with electric action), high up behind the organ where it speaks over the Swell box.

An interesting feature of the new organ is that it retains the wind pressures of the old instrument. These are relatively high for mechanical action. Accordingly each note on the Great and on the Swell has two pallets, one for reeds and one for flues, resulting in an action which is quite firm – chunky I usually say. Mechanical couplers were therefore ruled out; all the couplers on the instrument are electric. Some say that this is a compromise, but I don’t believe that this is so. It is often said that what is special about a Stradivarius is not its tone as heard by the audience, it is what the instrument does for the player which is then passed on to the audience. I believe the same is true of mechanical action. Except on a few relatively small instruments, and even then mostly on certain stops, the subtle gradations of attack achieved by different levels of touch are unlikely to be picked up by an audience. It is how this affects the player that benefits the audience. Moreover there is compromise as soon as any coupler is drawn, whether electric, mechanical, or otherwise. This is because mechanical couplers are always set so as to open the different manual pallets at slightly different times in order to displace the weight needed from the player’s finger. Any subtlety of touch employed when depressing a key will be lost in the transfer by coupler to a second keyboard. This is as true of mechanical as of electric couplers.

The organ is set out with the Great occupying the entire middle level of the case (ie the level of the bottom row of case pipes) with the Double Open Diapason on display, above it is the Swell in an interestingly shaped box: it stands in the top of the case, so the five lowest pipes of each stop are behind the central tower, next to them are the trebles and the box gets taller again towards its sides. There is not enough space inside the box to house the 16’ Bourdon, so it is placed immediately behind the box, with its mouths speaking through a sort of letterbox slit into the box itself, so that it is effectively enclosed. In the top section of the two main towers are the 8’Pedal stops divided C and C sharp, with the pipes of the Cello on display in front of the Swell box. As already mentioned, the Solo stands enclosed either side of the console, also divided C and C sharp. The Positive is of course in the small “Chair” case.  All through the design stage the top manual division was called Solo/Choir, because it has traditional features of both those divisions; but the label is cumbersome so in the end we chose “Solo” because it was the top keyboard. It was thought that having a top keyboard called “Choir” would be confusing even though the division has more in common with a traditional English (enclosed) Choir manual than with a Solo organ in the tradition of Hill/Willis/Harrison.

So what is the end result? Is it the same organ that went to Bonn in 1996? I say emphatically not. All that remains from the old organ is the case (altered), some stop knobs (re-engraved), the reservoirs and some pipes.  About half the pipes are from the old organ, and all of these have been re-voiced: the Open Wood and Double Open Diapason eg were given roller beards; the Pedal Principal new languids; the Vox Humana had newspaper removed from inside its boots – yes really! etc. The internal design, structure, action, windchests and rather more than half the pipes (including the Great Open Diapason 8’ and Double Diapason 16’, four of the manual flutes and all but one of the organ’s Mixtures) are all new. The organ feels, looks and sounds different. Because of the new design it projects much better into the building that previously. Amazingly, the organ is smaller than before (62 stops, rather than 67), but it doesn’t sound it; both in terms of dynamic volume and variety of tonal colour it seems a great deal bigger.

Is it a “German” organ? The stop list might almost lead one to suppose that it was a (fairly) standard English cathedral organ; certainly the console sends out cathedral organ messages. In fact I believe it is neither of those things, and anyone who treats the organ as either without using his ears and taking the trouble to listen is doomed to failure – though of course he may choose to blame the instrument rather than himself. There are features which are characteristics of an English cathedral organ: an opulent Pedal division, for instance, a high pressure Solo Tuba, two enclosed divisions each equipped with undulating strings etc; on the other hand, it is less usual to find cornets available on three separate keyboards, the biggest flutes on the Great rather than the Solo, a Quintadena on the Swell (here spelt B O U R D O N for political reasons – we didn’t want to frighten the horses, or those who judge a stop’s tone by reading the label on the knob) and Solo strings that are gentle rather than the more common (and equally useful) violes. Another unusual feature is the Toy department. This features two stops: a Cymbelstern – wind driven, and a 3 octave Glockenspiel*, housed on top of the C sharp tower and played from either the Solo or the Pedals. No, it is neither a typical “English” organ, whatever that is, nor a true German one, it is the Klais Organ of Bath Abbey and unique; it is its own man, with its own voice.

So what can it play? Can it play English music? Can it play French music? Can it accompany the Choir? Can it lead a congregation? First of all let me make it clear that I think the primary job of a large church organ is to be useful. It must in some measure do all of the above. It is not there to enable so-called authentic performance of music emanating from a small corner of Europe over a period of a mere half-century.** In answer to the last question the answer must be yes. The organ boasts a substantial Pedal section which fills the building with supporting bass tone; it also sports fiery reeds and bright, though not screaming, mixtures – all of which contribute to the instrument being heard clearly throughout the building. There is also a wealth of solo combinations for presenting tunes. Professor Johannes Geffert says he thinks it is a wonderful Bach organ (his performance here of the “St Anne” Prelude & Fugue the most convincing I have ever heard). On the other hand one audience member on arriving to hear a recital, saw there was a lot of French music on the programme and immediately left saying that this was a German organ and couldn’t play French music. His view was not shared by Daniel Roth who played an all French programme with great pleasure, and was generous in his praise of the instrument, singling out for special mention the Swell Trumpet which, he said, reminded him of home (S Sulpice, Paris). But what, you may ask, about accompanying the choir in the English cathedral tradition? In answer to this I must refer the reader to a series of CD recordings and BBC Radio 3 broadcasts of the Abbey Choir and organ which feature psalms, the music of S S Wesley, Stanford, Bairstow, Howells and others, and ask him to judge for himself.

What is special about the organ for me? I enjoy the fact that the flute choruses on each manual are entirely different from each other in character, furthermore some of the 4’ flutes sound lovely played an octave lower, and the 16’ “Bourdon” sounds lovely played an octave higher; the Doppel Flute, in particular is a beautiful, and characterful stop, its attack influenced by the touch of the player’s finger; I enjoy the facility of a miniature reed chorus on the Solo, complete with 16’ reed. I enjoy the fact that there are many different versions of pleno, depending on whether the timbre is influenced more by reeds or mixtures (and indeed which mixtures) – and the two really are independent of each other; there are other sounds which are special to me, not least the two 4’stops on the Positive played down an octave, and with the tremulant added – 8’ Principals are all too rarely used as solo stops, but whether the reason is due to the Principal or the player is often unclear. Most of all it is the Great Principal chorus, with its choice of mixtures (thus giving three versions), which thrills me. Some organists, especially when presiding at a Willis, will extol the virtues of the Clarinet, or Swell to Oboe, or full Swell (all of which feature at Bath), but it is the Great Principal chorus which is the heart and soul of an organ; it is here that most of the work is done, and like the strings of a symphony orchestra, it is this section which fundamentally sets the tone of the instrument. At Bath I believe the Great Principal chorus to be second to none. At the time of writing, the instrument is little more than a decade old; it will be interesting to see how future generations assess the instrument. Will it be as highly valued, for instance, as the Schulze at Armley? Time alone will tell.

* See article Glockenspiels on

** See my article Making Music on the Organ ibid.

Peter King

January 2009


Copyright Peter King 2007

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